Israeli Views of Chuck Hagel: Why the Right is Wrong

Since his nomination as Secretary of Defense and even in anticipation of it, the right-wing media has been accusing Chuck Hagel of being anti-Israel with the help of GOP grandstanding from senators such as Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.

“Hagel, if confirmed to be secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history,” Graham told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union.

Israelis don’t necessarily agree.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was widely perceived as taking sides in the U.S. presidential election in November, has apparently learned his lesson. “I do not interfere in the political appointments of the U.S. president. It is his prerogative,” Netanyahu told Israel’s Army Radio. “Congress decides and confirms, and we will work with whoever is chosen.”

Naftali Bennett, whose right-wing religious-nationalist party Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) is expected to do well in the upcoming parliamentary election on January 22, opined, “It’s none of our business, it’s America’s prerogative.” The son of two American emigrants to Israel who is particularly popular with younger voters said, “Israel and America’s bond goes way beyond certain relationships between individuals.”

Many Israelis in lesser political positions, and in the military and defense establishments, are irked by support for Israel being invoked for partisan purposes against a nominee whose appointment they have no valid grounds for contesting.

Retired Rear Admiral Ze’ev Almog criticized the efforts of pro-Israel supporters to dissuade U.S. senators from confirming Hagel. “From my contacts with him, in Washington and in Israel, I can testify that Hagel was always attentive and friendly toward Israel,” Almog declared. He noted that he and Hagel became friends and still stay in touch, adding that he had never heard Hagel say anything anti-Israel.

The first president of Friends of USO in Israel, Almog contradicted accusations made by the Washington Free Beacon and other U.S. right-wing media outlets that Hagel had attempted to close the Haifa USO and made disparaging remarks about Jews when he headed the USO between 1987-89. On the contrary, Almog recalled, Hagel opposed shuttering the USO center, even though budget cuts necessitated cutting funds for USO facilities elsewhere that resulted in their closing. The Haifa facility finally closed a decade after Hagel left his position at the USO. Almog added that when Hagel became a senator, he supported a $50 million grant to upgrade Haifa’s port facilities in and around Haifa’s port and an air force technical school’s runway used to ferry supplies to the Sixth Fleet.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a prominent member of Israel’s Likud party who cultivates close ties with the Christian evangelical community, told a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations on Thursday, “I know Hagel personally. When I was ambassador in Washington, we had many meetings. I cannot say that we agreed on everything, but he was a decent and fair interlocutor and you can reason with him. I think he believes in the relationship, in the natural partnership between Israel and the United States.” Ayalon called Hagel “a true American patriot” who understood that “the support that America gives Israel is in America’s interest.”

Yaakov Peri, a former director of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) said he shared Hagel’s critique of the Israel-Palestine issue and support fo a two-state solution. “I rely on the president of the United States that Chuck Hagel is a responsible and capable guy to do his job and I share the view that the US and Israeli bond and relationship and cooperation will remain, and hopefully strengthen,” Peri told the Christian Science Monitor.

A report titled Hagel and Israel by Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon is a well-researched examination of Hagel’s voting record and the positions he has articulated in speeches and articles. Published by the progressive Israeli think tank Molad, the report refutes claims by right-wing pundits (and erstwhile Republican Senate colleagues) that Hagel is hostile to Israel and his foreign policy views are contrary to Israel’s interests:

Hagel has shown that he is able to see Israel’s regional complexity, take an accounting of its dynamism, and act courageously to put forward a moderate multilateralist vision. After examining his record on Israel, his credibility on national security, and his understanding of the region, we believe that those who have Israel’s real interest at heart should applaud his nomination for U.S. Secretary of Defense. Only those who cherish the status quo and conflate Israel’s real interests with the reckless ideology of its current government should be concerned.  Hagel’s rational, multilateral, and interests-based approach might be precisely what is needed to reignite and reshape the administration’s engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Molad was founded by former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, an Israel Defense Forces paratrooper turned peace activist who served as Executive Chairman of the Jewish Agency.

It looks like U.S. right wing-media know a lot less about Israeli views of Hagel than they claim.

Photo: Chuck Hagel/Asia Society Flickr. 

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.